When I was a kid, I thought that joy was that wonderful, effervescent feeling that bubbles up inside you and rushes through your blood on Christmas morning, or when you swing really high, or when you stand on a mountain and look out across mile after beautiful mile of green valley.
I would have described it as swelling, overflowing, intoxicating, and mine by divine right—a feeling of whimsical enjoyment that I could summon up at will, that would paint life with a fairy sparkle that would never, ever wear off.
That was a while ago.
The fairy sparkle, to be honest, comes and goes. It’s hard to effervesce when sickness strikes, or your marriage is in trouble, or you don’t know how you’re going to pay your rent. At least it has been for me.
Ironically, or maybe not, I came face to face with real joy during one of the darkest times in my life. A few years ago, I entered into battle with anxiety and depression. I don’t know what flipped the switch, but I was plunged for a time into a state of acute misery. In between debilitating panic attacks that made my heart race and my hands shake, I was beset by nameless fears and a sucking darkness that made it nearly impossible to enjoy… well, anything. Children, laughter, Christmas lights, music—it all tasted like sawdust. Knocked loose from my moorings and listing badly, I lost myself—my personality, my cheerful disposition, what I had always thought of as “me”. I didn’t know what had caused it, and I certainly didn’t know how to get out of it.
I prayed almost constantly during this time, but for the first time in my life, I knew what David meant when he wrote in the Psalms begging God to stop “hiding His face”. That’s exactly what it felt like. That sense of God’s presence, that comfort in prayer, that warmth of His enfolding words—I couldn’t feel it, any of it.
And yet—even with my prayers seeming to bounce off the ceiling and fall back in my lap—I knew that He had not left me. My feelings were gone, but, despite that, my conviction that He still saw me, that He still loved me, and that my suffering was known to Him never wavered. Underneath all the pain, at the very bottom of the hole I was buried in, I found certainty. It wasn’t bubbly, or intoxicating. It was solemn, and deadly serious–a desperate lifeline in a dark and angry sea. Paul, helpless and worried about me, would comfort me by saying over and over, “This won’t last forever.” And I knew he was right. At the time, he meant to assure me that I would physically get better somehow (which, thanks to my doctor and the marvels of modern medicine, turned out to be true), but I heard it as God’s promise that suffering in this life, however incomprehensible, however long it goes on, will not last. For those who trust in Him, the light of morning will always come, even after the longest night. That is God’s promise. And I believe it.
That is my joy.